Farm workers in Scottish agriculture: case studies

Case studies examining farm workers in Scottish agriculture and the international seasonal migrant labour market.

Executive Summary

The seasonal nature and physical demands of agricultural work has resulted in some sectors of the Scottish industry, such as horticulture and dairy, becoming increasingly reliant on a supply of labour from outside the UK. Retaining access to this seasonal labour is critical to maintaining competitiveness in an increasingly global industry, and many farmers and labour providers have voiced concerns about potential future labour challenges. This report presents key findings from a project which aimed to provide a better understanding of the use of seasonal workers of non- UK origin in Scottish agriculture. Evidence was collected from a range of sources including Scottish Government administrative data, surveys of farmers and seasonal migrant workers, farmer and wider stakeholder interviews, and group interviews with seasonal migrant workers. The key findings of the study are reported below.

There has been a long term decline in the availability and willingness of the local Scottish and wider UK labour pool to work seasonally on farms. This historic labour resource has been substituted by non- UK workers, initially from Poland, the Czech Republic, Russia and Ukraine. With the accession of the Eastern European countries to the EU in 2004, labour mobility increased from these countries, including Estonia, Lithuania, Latvia, etc.

Since the accession of Bulgaria and Romania to the EU in 2007 there has been an increased reliance on workers from these countries to fill seasonal labour need, particularly after the prohibition of non- EU workers as the Seasonal Agricultural Workers Scheme ( SAWS) changed. Bulgarian and Romanian workers remain fundamental to the sector, accounting for an estimated 60% of the seasonal migrant workforce currently employed in Scottish agriculture. The seasonal EU workforce is considered to be “ motivated, reliable, hard-working and honest”, and the prevalence of workers from different countries reflects the economic performance of these countries relative to Scotland.

Business perspectives on the importance of seasonal migrant workers

The importance of migrant workers (both seasonal and permanent) to all aspects of the agricultural supply chain was repeatedly stressed by farm businesses and labour providers, with a key link evident between seasonal workers on farms (providing raw product) and seasonal/permanent migrant workers in packhouses (preparing products for the market).

Nearly two-thirds of farmers said that they were likely to switch to other agricultural activities without access to their migrant workforce, with over half saying they would likely diversify their business into non-agricultural activities. Without access to migrant labour, horticulture businesses reported a high likelihood that they would either downscale their business or cease production. Over two thirds of the farm businesses thought there was no real opportunity to substitute labour from the local market and only a fifth of the businesses felt that they would be likely to maintain their existing business structure without an effective and consistent seasonal workforce.

The scale of the seasonal migrant workforce in Scotland

It is conservatively estimated that there were 9,255 seasonal migrant workers engaged in Scottish agriculture during 2017 (including 900 employed directly by labour providers). About 25% work on more than one farm in the UK and there is also transition to other sectors of work, in particular food processing and hospitality.

It is challenging to estimate the extent of seasonal migrant labour use in Scotland for a variety of reasons: (i) variance in the proportion of labour directly employed on farms compared to that indirectly employed through labour providers; (ii) incomplete estimates of seasonal migrant labour provision in administrative databases; (iii) farm businesses leasing their land to specialist growers who undertake all of the farming activity; (iv) the transitory nature of some migrant labour – working on multiple farms. Using the project survey data, the Scottish Government’s June Agricultural Census and other published data, estimates of the overall seasonal migrant workforce engaged in Scottish agriculture were made and are summarised in Table 1.

Table 1: Estimated scale of the seasonal migrant workforce engaged in Scottish Agriculture (2017)

Estimated Workers
Protected soft fruit 6,694
Field fruits
Strawberry, Raspberry and Blueberries 567
Other Soft Fruit (including blackcurrants) 64
Potatoes 810
Flowers and Bulbs 223
Cabbages 65
Calabrese 216
Cauliflower 39
Brussels Sprouts 281
Rhubarb 9
Other Veg for human consumption 289
Total Seasonal Migrant Workforce 9,255

The use of a large scale seasonal migrant workforce is concentrated on a small number of very intensive horticulture units. For example, 19 of the businesses responding to the farm business survey accounted for 90% of the workforce and workdays of all survey respondents.

The role of labour providers and recruitment agencies

Registered ‘gangmasters’ either act as recruitment agencies for the industry or as suppliers of short-term contract labour on farms (labour providers). Both forms are regulated by the Gangmasters and Labour Abuse Authority, and are scrutinised over issues such as workplace health and safety, training, working hours, overtime, holidays, sick-pay, etc. There are often long-term working relationships between farmers and labour providers, built on mutual trust.

Farm businesses with high seasonal labour demand, in particular soft fruit businesses, revealed a general preference for directly employing migrant labour, although many used registered labour providers during peak periods or recruitment agencies to help source workers. Those in the field vegetable and flower sectors tended to have a preference for using labour providers to meet their seasonal labour demands.

Despite some farms expressing reservations over the use of labour providers and recruitment agencies, for parts of the industry they are considered a vital, flexible and trustworthy source of temporary labour that can be hired depending on need.

Many labour providers supply workers into a wide array of non-agricultural industries, but there are a few that specialise in agricultural work, largely servicing the potato and field vegetable sectors. These agricultural specialists have strong relationships with their farming clients and work hard at recruiting and maintaining their workforce to be able to undertake a wide variety of tasks.

Labour provider employees generally have their own accommodation and are therefore usually more permanently located in Scotland, or follow a regular multi-season work pattern. Labour providers are often asked to provide services to farms on a ‘just-in-time’ basis, which can lead to logistical challenges for the business.

Seasonal Migrant Worker Perspectives

The key motivations for non- UK seasonal workers choosing to work on Scottish farms were: (i) earnings potential linked to enhanced quality of life and goals; (ii) conditions of work relative to home countries; and (iii) familiarity, recommendations and farm reputations. Wage motives were driven by significant gaps in the statutory minimum wage between their home country and Scotland. This has resulted in significantly higher relative earning potential for (even seasonal) work in Scotland.

Workers regularly sent money home to families and were often working towards specific life targets, such as paying for a house in their home country. Most workers would like to return home to work on a permanent basis, but that opportunity is heavily linked to the performance of their home country economies. Some workers have long term aspirations to move to the UK on a permanent basis and saw agricultural work as a stepping stone into more permanent work in other sectors of the UK economy, such as hospitality, transport or construction.

The majority of the seasonal workers directly employed on farms rented accommodation (usually in caravans) from their employers. The accommodation was usually in close proximity to the fields / packhouses which workers found convenient and in particular reduced private transport needs.

Many of seasonal migrant workers had some previous agricultural experience and come from a wide range of backgrounds. The workforce had mixed levels of education, with many having higher education qualifications and wider, non-agricultural, work experience.

Informal social networks have been an important source of introduction to businesses, alongside recruitment agencies (e.g. Concordia, HOPS) which are estimated to source around a fifth of the annual workforce. Some businesses are actively recruiting abroad, often using existing staff to promote their business and undertake interviews.

The decline in non- UK workers’ effective ‘take-home’ wage, caused by a weakening of Sterling, was considered a challenge by most workers, with some saying it may affect their decision to return to Scotland in the future. Other key challenges that workers faced whilst in Scotland included missing friends and family, language, workloads, fatigue and the Scottish weather Workers highlighted that friendly relationships with their employers were highly valued attributes of working in Scotland.

Returnee workers represent over half the Scottish seasonal migrant workforce, often leading to long term working relationships built on mutual trust and respect. Returnees reduce the recruitment and training costs for farmers and recruitment and familiarisation costs for workers. Additionally, it can help workers access opportunities for higher pay, overtime, and progression into supervisory / management roles. Long term returnees often become keystone workers, helping supervise staff and manage the business.


The seasonal pattern of crops in Scotland provides an opportunity for extended work for a proportion of seasonal migrant workers, who may actually be working wholly in the UK, but for multiple businesses (farms, labour providers and in non-agricultural sectors). Indeed there is evidence of a proportion of this workforce moving between English and Scottish businesses in line with peak harvest seasons.

On average, seasonal migrant workers were employed for just over four months per year, corresponding to the key soft fruit harvest period, and it was estimated that around three-quarters of seasonal migrant workers only work on a single farm in any given season.

Labour Regulations

The influence of the Scottish Agricultural Wages Board ( SAWB) and the statutory minimum wage was evident. Generally there was a standard entry level wage of £7.50 per hour, with some more experienced workers earning more than double this rate. As the industry effectively still works on piece rate (i.e. per kilo / bunch / tray harvested) or a system of bonuses, the statutory minimum wage effectively sets the floor for less efficient workers, with experienced workers capable of earning considerably higher hourly wage rates.

The influence of SAWB was particularly noticeable regarding overtime, with many businesses generally restricting the number of hours worked by workers to minimise overtime. This SAWB influence was contentious amongst many farmers who claimed it put Scottish businesses at a competitive disadvantage over their counterparts in England where no statutory overtime rate applies.

Worker Integration

Whilst the seasonal migrant workers overall did not consider themselves to be well integrated into Scottish society, it was different for longer term returnees, or semi-permanent staff. This lack of integration was often considered a mere consequence of living on-farm. Very few workers had experienced discrimination or xenophobia on farm but over a quarter expressed that they had experienced discrimination when off-farm. Some workers were well integrated into local sports teams and there was anecdotal evidence of church congregations being bolstered.

It was estimated that seasonal migrant workers engaged in Scottish agriculture were paid in excess of £80 million in wages in 2016/17, and a proportion of this is being spent locally, especially in supermarkets and shops, thereby contributing positively to local economies.


Brexit has undoubtedly affected the confidence of a proportion of workers and therefore their expectations about returning to Scotland in 2018. To date, there have been no certain answers for workers’ concerns (e.g. the strength of Sterling, potential visa costs, more limited access to the UK labour market), as the businesses themselves are equally uncertain over Brexit issues.

Approximately 40% of the surveyed workers were certain they would be returning to Scotland in 2018, with 12% unlikely to return due to having permanent jobs to go to in their home countries, or returning to studies, etc. 46% were uncertain about whether they would return in 2018.

Many workers in interviews mentioned the attractiveness of other countries (in particular Scandinavia and Germany), where there were fewer uncertainties and high rates of pay. It was, however, acknowledged that there were longer working seasons in Scotland with familiar and friendly people, and that there would be greater language barriers in other countries and higher competition for work from new migrants (referring to Germany).

Agricultural recruitment agencies supplying seasonal agricultural labour experienced a 15-20% increase in demand for seasonal labour in 2017 and extra effort had to be made to recruit in Bulgaria and Romania. Businesses and stakeholders consistently reiterated how access to this workforce is absolutely vital to continuing the current scale of operation of Scotland’s soft fruit and field vegetable businesses due to the lack of a reliable, motivated local labour pool.

Businesses called for strong leadership and improved clarity around communications on Brexit, including definitive statements on labour movement and potential future visa requirements for migrant workers. This was seen as presenting an opportunity for minimising uncertainty, thereby increasing business confidence and ensuring workers perceived Scotland as welcoming.

Many farmers and stakeholders viewed a new visa/permit scheme for seasonal migrant workers as critical to ensuring ongoing access to sufficient worker numbers. In addition, it was felt that such a move would provide reassurances that the value of the existing workforce was recognised by government – thereby building business confidence and facilitating future growth. Some businesses recognised a need to explore labour provision options beyond the EU and the main existing providers (e.g. Bulgaria and Romania), due to increasing living standards across the EU. Some potential options identified by interviewees included Russia, the Ukraine, North and West Africa and Turkey.

Summary of Recommendations

Managing business and worker uncertainty

A key overarching recommendation from this work is the development of clear commitments and statements on the part of the UK and Scottish Governments, expressing support for the horticultural industry and identifying/agreeing the ongoing need for access to sufficient numbers of seasonal migrant workers. Statements should also target migrant workers, to ensure workers are aware that they are welcome and valued in Scotland and the wider UK.

Recruitment mechanisms and ensuring future access to labour

Further development is required within the horticultural (and wider agricultural) sector of direct recruitment strategies, including exploring opportunities for coordinated ‘inward missions’ to countries currently providing high numbers of workers, as well as countries which represent potential future labour markets.

To address existing and ongoing declines in labour availability, the UK and Scottish Government (and the horticultural sector as a whole) should strongly consider potential measures which can be undertaken to increase access to wider labour markets – beyond the current emphasis on Bulgaria and Romania – thereby reducing future labour risks.

The rapid reinstatement of a renewed Seasonal Agricultural Workers Scheme or SAWS-like scheme by the UK Government (or a specific Scottish scheme) represents a key potential opportunity for reassuring employers and providing a specific mechanism to ensure worker availability longer term. Any potential scheme should be specific to agriculture in the short term, while potentially considering expansion to other sectors longer term to facilitate movement between sectors, in particular the food processing sector.

Best practice – maintaining and promoting high standards

The horticultural sector as a whole should ensure that working conditions on Scottish farms are maintained to a high standard and improved where possible, to ensure the reputations of Scottish farms are maintained and enhanced within a competitive international labour market. Developing measures to support further sharing of best practice and knowledge relating to worker induction and training, accommodation and other factors, across the sector are considered beneficial.

Monitoring and long term data gathering

A more comprehensive year-on-year assessment of the use of seasonal migrant labour in Scottish agriculture should be undertaken through the June Agricultural Census ( JAC) or through the December Agricultural Survey ( DAS). As a minimum the existing seasonal migrant labour question within the JAC should be expanded to assess numbers of seasonal and permanent workers employed of non- UK origin. Additional details should be sought at least every second year regarding the time periods of seasonal workers’ employment, their roles, countries of origin and use of registered labour provider workers.

Recognising the value of the seasonal migrant workforce

Increased efforts should be made by both the Scottish Government and agricultural/horticultural sector to recognise and value the role of seasonal migrant workers within the agricultural sector and wider rural economies and their contribution as experienced employment migrants to the success of the sector. This should include recognition of the role of seasonal migrant workers within the Scottish Government’s future Agricultural Strategy and the work of the Agricultural Champions.


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